Few sparks in first televised Democratic governor debate

Jun 10, 2014

The 2014 Rhode Island campaign for governor began in earnest tonight as Democratic primary aspirants Angel Taveras, Clay Pell and Gina Raimondo met in a live televised debate on WPRI-TV that was far more remarkable for policy agreements than disagreements or the sharp, thrust-and-parry exchanges emblematic of Democratic primaries of yore.

Taveras, the Providence mayor, Raimondo, state general treasurer, and Pell, a political newcomer and the grandson of Sen. Claiborne Pell, stuck with familiar campaign themes: Taveras reprised his administration’s bailing the capital city out from under a $110 million deficit he inherited and Raimondo underscored her leadership on the 2011 state pension overhaul. Pell, who polls show is trailing what has become a two-person race between the mayor and treasurer, stressed that he is an outsider who isn’t beholden to anyone in the state’s political establishment.

Few sparks flew as the candidates stuck with their poll-tested and consultant-shaped campaign tropes. It was more like the first round of a heavyweight boxing match than the 10th round in the runup to the September primary.

The debate, held at the Providence Performance Arts Center, was sponsored by WPRI-Channel 12 and the ProJo. Despite the best efforts of moderator Tim White of Channel 12 and panelists Ted Nesi of Channel 12 and Ed Fitzpatrick of the Projo to press candidates for specifics, candidates bobbed and weaved on several tough questions.

It was as if all the candidates had taken their debate motto from that wonderful old Joan Baez song, `Diamonds and Rust’ where Baez laments that an ex-lover was so good with words and ``keeping things vague.’’

The policy and political differences were mostly those of insider issue nuance. While both Raimondo and Pell pledged to appoint an independent commission to investigate the 38 Studios fiasco, Taveras said he would wait and see. Taveras said he would convene such a panel only in the event that the Chafee Administration’s civil lawsuit against the law firms and financial companies who urged the deal on the state and the current attorney general’s criminal investigation fail to get to the bottom of how 38 Studios evolved into the disaster it became.

The main substantive difference that emerged was on the estate tax, which the R.I. House Finance Committee budget approved last week proposes to cut. Pell said he was against the move because it would force working and middle class Rhode Islanders to subsidize the wealthy. Raimondo said she supports the move to cut the estate levy because doing so should help to keep well-off elderly people from leaving the state solely for tax purposes.

Taveras said he is for a progressive tax structure, but that he didn’t want to criticize the Assembly’s budget plan because it includes not only the estate tax cut but increased state aid for his hard-pressed city. On teacher evaluation, Pell was the most forceful on criticizing an overzealous evaluation regime and spoke against high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement.

There was the usual joust over the pension overhaul. Raimondo cited her leadership in getting done the pension changes that cut benefits to retirees and state employees and  defended her process as a transparent one. She noted that about 90 percent of lawmakers voted for the legislation that emerged in a special legislative session in 2011. The treasurer also reminded voters that she went along with the proposed lawsuit settlement that was grounded when unionized police officers opposed it.

``I was very disappointed when the unions couldn’t get the votes,’’ said Raimondo.

Pell said that Raimondo didn’t solve the pension system red ink problem because the union lawsuit is pending before the courts. If he gets elected, Pell said, he would take another stab at forging a settlement. Taveras said he was able to keep Providence’s pension system solvent by cooperation, rather than confrontation, with the unions representing city public safety employees. The mayor, too, left open the door to further settlement talks.

With all three candidates fishing for votes in the cobalt blue waters of Rhode Island’s Democratic Party base, it was nearly impossible to discern any major differences in issues dear to party liberals. Pell, Raimondo and Taveras all said they wanted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from the current $8 rate, with Pell asserting he would do it faster. All three candidates expressed support for abortion rights.  All the major Democratic candidates said they favor paying 38 Studios investors.

They even agreed on the silly issues that  occasionally define politics in the Ocean State, with all the candidates saying they would label the Statehouse December evergreen a `Christmas tree’ rather than a holiday tree, as Gov. Lincoln Chafee did for the first two years of his administration before reversing himself last year.

It was a very civil debate, again by the standards of many state campaigns for high office.  Candidates launched an occasional jab, such as Raimondo noting that Providence has a high commercial tax rate. There was, of course, no shortage of pandering to the usual parochial themes: Raimondo wants to beef up tourism marketing so outsiders can enjoy our state’s beaches and sip a ``Del’s Lemonade.’’  Taveras once again cited his up-from-poverty upbringing with his  oft-mentioned ``Head Start to Harvard’’ slogan. And Raimondo said she was not a Wall Street Democrat. Rather she reminded voters of her middle class roots in suburban Smithfield.

Pell was more forceful than he has been so far in campaign appearances. He cited the fact that he is the lone candidate with service in the U.S. Military (he was a Coast Guard lieutenant). And of course mentioned his grandfather’s path-breaking Pell Grant program that helps pay for college education for students who can’t afford it.

All three candidates support same –sex marriage. When asked to rate Chafee’s three and a half year administration with a letter grade, Raimondo and Pell both gave the incumbent a `C’ for his performance on jobs and the economy and a A for leading the charge for marriage equality. Pell also, to laughter, quipped that Chafee deserved an A plus for switching parties and becoming a Democrat. Taveras declined to give Chafee a letter grade but said he is a ``good man’’ who has served his state well in a long political career.